Music for unmade movies – Interview with Benedict Roff-Marsh

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Benedict Roff-Marsh is an interesting artist, to say the least. In the complex, beautiful and intense electronic music he’s been writing for decades now you can see influences ranging from classical music to progressive rock, film music, and Berlin School electronics. Benedict has taken all those and turned them into something unique and true to himself. His interview is a real-life story with all of its ups and downs, highlights, struggles, and dreams. It’s a read as honest as his creative output and we advise you to pour yourself a mug of hot tea, sit back and dive deep in the life and art of Benedict Roff-Marsh.

Hello! Tell the world about yourself. How did you grow up to become the musician you are today?

It has been 49 years so, I hope you have a comfy seat… My father was a highly trained cathedral organist & harpsichordist so, the first music I’ve heard was Bach, Hayden, Stravinsky etc. He played Baroque music on his harpsichord in the room next to mine. His record collection seemed like magical items to me.

My brothers brought pop music into the house in the late 70’s. At first, I didn’t like it (no doubt partly because of my father’s opinion). Then suddenly it started to make sense as I saw the new wave acts on TV. Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Joan Jett etc. They all seemed like a cross between Bach & the look of KISS. I was smitten.

Leaving school I wanted to become a record producer, Alan Parsons to be precise, but there was no career path. I got to go into a TV Studio for work experience and once I went into the sound room, I said to myself “I am home”. The guys there were happy to have me back for after school hours but by the time I got back next year the place was sold and the guys have moved on.

I tried University and then worked in a bank (blech!). There I met a customer who had a small commercial studio where he made AM radio jingles. I talked my way in and started learning. Sadly he wasn’t the most disciplined employer so, off I was.

Taking what I had learned I decided to teach myself to use synthesizers as I saw that no one was comfortable with electronics yet. It seemed like a skill I could win with. Using a Casio CZ-1000 on the floor, I started composing to give myself something to engineer. I went to see live acts and tried to talk myself into being their engineer or producer but while some of the bands showed some interest in my music (by now on Radio 4ZZZ) it was always no dice.

So, I kept making music, putting a cover on it and making some cassette copies to put in the shops. Now it’s all on Bandcamp.

Introduce your current musical projects and tell us what makes each one special for you!

I recently finished “Unmade Movies” and I’m currently trialing a track-a-week release of a tribute record to Wendy Carlos (and of course Bach) called “Plugged-In Bach”. I thought I would try the lots-of-songs-over-time approach pundits tell us will increase interest. Sadly, I can’t report any improvement over a traditional “here’s the new record” approach.

Next? Well, I have been playing with ideas that attempt to stretch my interest in synthesized orchestral sounds with my desire to build more interesting interplay with melody, countermelody, and orchestration – whilst keeping my minimal approach. Maybe with a new age feel but I think I’m probably just going to end up sounding like me again.

You have been playing music for a long while! How do you find the drive and inspiration to keep going all this time?

Inspiration Pah! I have to do it. If I don’t create something every few days, I start becoming pretty shaky within myself. Creating is about the only thing that keeps me from imploding.

As for finding ideas for pieces etc., well, I try to get better every time. I try to find that perfect/proper way to get across whatever it is that my poor trapped brain is trying to say. I have tried to give up but my brain has something it needs to express so I keep going. Luckily I basically love making music so it is more of a pleasure than torture.

That and I live in hope that one day I will do something that people love.

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How is your local music scene in your perspective? Do you feel like you belong there?

The Gold Coast is not exactly New York. I guess there is a scene of sorts. I know a few musos but I can’t say I have managed to be involved. I have offered to help a few people but at best they smile & nod – then barely talk to me again past a quick hello. Hard to feel a part of anything when you don’t feel like anyone wants you there.

I do have our Unigon Plane review site which is there to present decent Indi act records to the public but even there I am amazed at how many acts show no interest in being covered, even after being invited. I thought everyone was dying for exposure, we may not be Rolling Stone but all exposure is good exposure and all that. A cathedral is built from lots of small bricks.

Maybe it is simply part of the Aspie thing of feeling like I am on another planet so I don’t feel that I am connected to anyone very well.

What is your all-time favorite record and how did it change you as an artist?

Oh geez! Ummm. I guess seeing it just one then probably The Alan Parsons Project “Eye In The Sky”. It contains so much virtuosity and wonderfully delivered material. Alan Parsons was a top producer but he still knew that passion outweighed technicality every time.

Then I guess need to add the key moments – and all still wonderful records:
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” – the single best Rock record ever
Deep Purple’s “Deep Purple” – the third record with “April” and while largely forgotten (or shunned) by fans, it contains a lot of fascinating experimentation
Judas Priest’s “Sad Wings Of Destiny” – a total corker of a record with a sense of expanding horizons
Gary Numan’s “Telekon” – the definitive Numan record, if you get only one, this is it. I identified with Numan so much. Only later did I realize we are both Aspie and his alienated image was Aspie in action.
Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Welcome Back My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends – Ladies & Gentlemen” – this was played on the radio in the “concert” hour. Wow, and OMG! I already knew some ELP but such passion, bombast and cool sounds in a live format. Over 30 years later I don’t own this record (yet) but it was a pivotal moment when I first heard it.
I could go on but I won’t.

What are your favorite software and hardware tools for music production?

Hands down Propellerheads Reason. I have used a lot of other software & hardware since my CZ in 1988 but Reason suits me so well. I really love the almost infinitely versatile patching system. Easy to pass off as a novelty if you don’t understand the power in there but being able to arrange things exactly how I want is great.

The other great thing for me is the very thing that haters rag on; the streamlined feature set makes Reason such a joy to use. Not having everything buried in infinite windows is so freeing. Nothing needs configuring, I can simply drag in an instrument and get to work. If I want to add an effect, drag it in. So much more like a real-world paradigm. Simple but as powerful as my ability to work it.

Thor is such a powerful synth, there is little that I can’t get him to do for me. Then more recently, Europa dwarfs even Thor. Adding VST is a bit of a double edged sword but there are a few things that I have liked playing with, mostly in the Analog Saturation emulation domain. That said, I know that none of those things really sound like the real deal at all. It is a bit of a con really but if it sounds nice then I’m happy. I learned many years ago not to get bogged down in obsessing over sound – seems a funny thing for a dedicated synthesist to say but it is more important to deliver the record than leave it to stagnate whilst using imperfect sound as an avoidance technique.

What is your songwriting process like?

I always start with a sound. Not a preset but making a sound until it speaks to me. To the casual listener, it may sound like every other Synth Brass or Synth String sound that I ever made but it is once it speaks to me and I have the sense that there could be a melody in it that I take to the sequencer.

Mostly that is with the mouse in the Piano Roll but increasingly I will freestyle something into the sequencer. Then I’ll either freestyle another part in a complimentary sound to make the call & response or I’ll make something that contrasts like a rigid pad or Berlin School style of arpeggio sequence.

From there it is a case of sketching out the structure of a piece. The parts have to expand on the story (even if I haven’t solidified it in a name yet). I refuse to work on a loop over & over till I have exhausted my creativity in making 30 seconds of huge sound with no purpose. Once I have the story sketched out I fill in and build the overall sound. The sounds then have a purpose past only sounding big. Drums are almost always last with me.

I render the track off (hopefully with a name) and listen to it at the end of the evening. I also check the piece on the lounge system which is different from my studio system.

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Out of all the live shows you played, which one was the most memorable, and why?

The rave put on by a local electronic collective that I was a member of. They put on a DJ in the other room at the same time as my set so everyone went and laid on the floor there drinking Chai and congratulating themselves on how hip they were to listen to a DJ play chill choonz whilst a local composer felt like a loser in the main room. Of course, all their live sets didn’t have to compete with the DJ, just me. Way to make me feel wanted. Typical tho of rave kids as they are so closed to anything that doesn’t have a 909.

I used to DJ for school discos so have a lot of better memories from those events. When you have 500 kids bouncing up and down as you play air guitar, you know why Keith Richards said that drugs were the only way of getting close to the feeling of being on stage.

What is your biggest musical goal?

To be respected and valued by audiences. I’d like to feel (and know) that there are people out there as moved by my records as I am by those I listed above. That way I know I managed to get whatever the message my brain is trying to express out to the world. When people pay for your work and talk about it with excitement and reverence, you know your message made it through.

I would also like to get to score for movies. People always say my music sounds like film music. I would love to score a nature documentary using my sounds, my style. Normally, they are so cliche, used to be flute & guitar, now it is all Kontakt Action String presets. Why not a unique vision? Maybe it will have to be a documentary about an alien planet in order to be even considered for a job like this.

How has being on Drooble helped you as a musician?

This I can’t really say as while it is very nice to be able to be “in a room” with other musicians in a similar situation to mine, I do find I get very little feedback. I write a lot of comments & advice for other people, but so little comes back my way. Sure my music may be different, but it doesn’t make it non-music. Real communities are built on give & take. These days the internet, in general, feels like it is all take.

I’d love for the input I give to be seen as something I could expand on one-on-one in a professional type situation. I had one person ask but they gave a churlish reply as soon as they realized that I don’t just give everything away for free. It is a sad thing when it feels like you are only wanted when you do things for free, especially if that person is planning to make money off the project.

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